MARCH 22 marked the 20th anniversary of the U.N.'s World Water Day, and while the annual event focuses on the sustainable management of one of the planet's most essential non-renewable resources, the 2013 observance followed on the heels of a severe multi-year drought in many agriculturally productive regions of the world.
According to U.N. data, 85% of the population lives on the driest half of the planet. More than 783 million people do not have access to clean water, and almost 2.5 billion do not have access to adequate sanitation.
While water-related infrastructure issues in urban areas -- home to more than 50% of the global population -- are one major issue, world leaders are paying increasingly close attention to the role food production plays in overall water use. With food demand projected to increase 30% by 2030 and 50% by 2050, increasing agricultural output will substantially increase both water and energy consumption.
The U.N. noted that agriculture's future global water consumption alone is estimated to increase roughly 19% by 2050. Water for irrigation and food production reportedly accounts for 70% of the freshwater used on a global scale and as much as 90% in some fast-growing developing countries.
Dietary shifts are also expected to drive future food-related water consumption. As part of its World Water Day campaign, a U.N. analysis notes that economic growth and individual wealth continue to move diets from largely starch-based fare to more meat and dairy consumption. The U.N. Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that global per capita meat consumption will grow from 37 kg in 1999 to 52 kg in 2030.
While experts differ on how much water is actually used in producing various foods, FAO said the dietary shift toward animal proteins presents the "greatest impact on water consumption over the past 30 years," and the trend is likely to continue well into the middle of this century.
"As our global population grows and millions of people improve their diets, it will be critical to increase the efficiency of water use in agriculture production," said Claudia Garcia, chair of the Global Harvest Initiative, a private-sector effort to promote productivity growth throughout the agricultural value chain. "With innovative solutions and greater adoption of existing technologies, we can meet the food needs of tomorrow while addressing the challenges of climate change."
Crop production is a key area where scientists, private companies and food producers are working to improve water use efficiency.
"The 2012 drought in the U.S. was the worst in a generation," Mark Svoboda, a climatologist with the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said. "Now, we're looking ahead to what could be another very tough year for U.S. farmers and ranchers, and the drought will continue to have major implications for agriculture here in the U.S. and abroad. We are doing a lot of research with the goal of reducing vulnerability to drought, which will ultimately reduce the economic consequences."
To some extent, that basic recognition of the problem was what World Water Day was designed to bring about when it was initiated 20 years ago. While much of the global focus centers on arid regions of the planet and infrastructure challenges in the third world, the U.S. is not without its own water issues.
"Even as developing countries are undertaking efforts to provide adequate water supply and sanitation infrastructure for all, the U.S. faces problems of maintaining its existing water infrastructure," said Susan Riha, director of the New York state Water Resources Institute and a professor of earth and atmospheric sciences at Cornell University. "Federal funding for water-related infrastructure projects has been on the decline in the U.S. for the past few decades while the number of projects needing support increases every year."
In fact, in its 2013 "Infrastructure Report Card," the American Society of Civil Engineers gave both the U.S. drinking water and wastewater systems a "D" grade, noting that much of the infrastructure in place is nearing the end of its useful life.
There are an estimated 240,000 water main breaks in the U.S. each year. Assuming that every pipe would need to be replaced, the cost over the coming decades could reach more than $1 trillion, according to the American Water Works Assn.